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The little gym that could: Terry Grisham’s Team Chalk takes regular folks and helps them become champion powerlifters

Ali Priest

BY NICK PATTERSON

SEPTEMBER 24, 2021

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Photos courtesy of Terry Grisham.

Members of Team Chalk pose for a photo with Chalk Gym owner Terry Grisham, center front, during the United States Powerlifting Association Club One Classic in Oxford.

When Ali Priest took her job at McLeod Software in Inverness, she also needed to find a gym that was closer to work. She found a spot just across U.S. 280 at Chalk Gym.

And now, just a few months after starting at the gym and joining the family of lifters led by Chalk Gym owner Terry Grisham, Priest not only has a new perspective, but since July 10, she has a gold medal and her name in the record book.

All nine lifters from Team Chalk participated July 10 in the United States Powerlifting Association Club One Classic in Oxford and earned gold medals and several state records in their weight and age classes.

Besides Priest, 32, Team Chalk was represented by Tyler McGill of Vestavia; Tamdoan Huynh, a Spain Park High School senior from Greystone; Betty Petro, a grandmother from Mt. Laurel; Roy Jackson; Noah Kim; Carolyn Moore, a Trussville grandmother who broke her back a few years ago, and her husband Sandy Moore, a Vietnam veteran and former Homewood firefighter, who still carries shrapnel from the war.

“It was really fun having so many people who I know there, getting to cheer on my teammates and having them there with me,” Priest said.

Grisham, a longtime weightlifter with his own name in the books, setting a master’s world record in the squat in a Las Vegas meet in 2019, uses what he’s learned in training and coaching college and professional athletes to encourage and develop a diverse group of ordinary people into powerlifting champions.

“None of these people are professional athletes, but they’re in here getting better, overcoming obstacles and doing things way into their older years, which is something that everybody doesn’t think they could do. But they really could if they believed they could,” Grisham said.

Chalk Gym — so named because of the chalk weightlifters often put on their hands to enhance their grip — opened in 2016 after Grisham had already spent a career in coaching.Expand

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Ali Priest performs a squat during the Club One Classic. “I’ve never felt so deeply cared for by a coach than I have by Terry,” Priest said.

“I was a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Oklahoma. I started in 1984,” Grisham said. After that he became a strength coach at LSU.

“In 1991 I worked with the baseball team when they won their first national championship, and then that got the attention of the Chicago White Sox, and I got a job there,” he said. During the Major League Baseball strike in 1995, he wound up remaining in Birmingham, working at an orthopedic group office.

Grisham decided to put his expertise to use in his own business.

“Everybody said, ‘You have a master’s degree in exercise physiology. You worked with professional athletes (including Michael Jordan) … You’d be crazy not to open your own gym’,” he said.

He found that the same kind of motivation that benefited pro athletes also worked for people with more basic needs for weight training. ‘“When people come in here to work out, it’s my job to help them perform better in any regard that they want.” Grisham said. “So some people do want to compete. Some people just want to do rehab, some people want to lose weight, some people just want to get stronger,” he said.

Priest had been lifting for a while before coming to Chalk Gym. It was February when she changed jobs and changed gyms.

She said she finds Chalk Gym to be significantly different from what she had experienced before.

“It’s really unlike any environment I’ve ever been in,” she said. “It’s a fairly small gym, so you kind of get to know everybody you work out with. Everybody has their routines, so you’re usually working out with the same people. And everyone has to put up with Terry,” she said, laughing. “So I feel like there’s a bonding element just around that.”

She said that as a coach, Grisham is intense. But once he yells at you, you know you’re part of the family. It’s all about doing things “the Chalk way:” “Pushing yourself. Not making any excuses… Terry just really doesn’t put up with it. So you’re really forced to really see what you’re made of, pushing yourself to really do your best and follow all of Terry’s rules and processes.

“The Chalk Way is about being willing to get uncomfortable in order to achieve your goals,” she continued. “It’s about buying into a process in which you learn to control your mind and make every lift look exactly the same. It’s not really about how much weight is on the bar. It’s about doing your bet and never giving up.”

Grisham said he saw the potential in Ali and the others in the group.

“Everybody follows a certain program and so as everybody started to improve, I said, ‘You guys are doing really, really well. Why don’t I look up the state records for Alabama and see what they are compared to what you guys are lifting’,” Grisham recalled.

“So, come to find out, probably four or five spots that these lifters filled had no state records. They were just blank. Mainly that’s because when people turn 40 or so, they don’t do anything like they do when they’re 20. So, there were no records for young 17 year-old-girls. There were no records for female 60-year-olds, no records for female 70- year-olds and there were no records for any guys over 75.

“So I said, ‘Alright guys. We’re going to go set records and you guys are going to show people that you can do it’.”

Priest said that she always enjoyed “maxing out.”

“I always enjoyed pushing my one rep max. And so when I was presented with the opportunity to compete, I just thought, ‘Why not?’ When Terry mentioned I should think about competing, I told him I had already thought about it, and I had to get a little bit stronger. So over the next few weeks, my first few weeks at the gym, I was getting stronger. I had squatted 242 pounds and I said, ‘How much do I have to squat to compete? And he said, ‘300.’ And I said, “OK, let’s do it.”

She ended up squatting 299 pounds in the gym, and then at the competition did 286 pounds for back squat.

While the lifters on Team Chalk came to the gym for different reasons, they all had to be motivated to compete. Grisham’s method involves getting them into the mindset to do their best, but letting them know he’s there for support.

“I always tell my lifters, I’m never going to put anything on the bar you can’t lift,” he said. “No. 2: I’m always going to be behind you. If you ever have a problem, I’ll be there. They have the confidence knowing I’m behind them that I’ve got my hands on the bar in case anything happens.”

Grisham said as a coach you come up with whatever button for each individual that you need to push, and when you push it the right way, everybody gets inspired and they get motivated and they’ll do things that they never thought they could.

“I always try to find something that’s relatable to the individual,” Grisham said.

For Priest, the camaraderie at the gym makes all the difference.

“I truly have been inspired by every single person that I train with and every single one of us has our own strengths and weaknesses on different lifts,” she said. “I think it’s just really motivating to be with a group of people which you know is also pushing their limits. And oftentimes during a workout, I’m motivated by watching my teammates work so hard. I would say that’s probably the unique thing about Chalk Gym. You’re not doing it alone.”

And a big part of that is the intense attention of a very driven coach and trainer.

“I’ve never felt so deeply cared for by a coach than I have by Terry,” she said. “It really is special in that way.”